As the country quickly approaches the remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. next week, the U.S. Congress is considering voting rights legislation named after one of King’s proteges: the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021.
As the nation listens to the debate between lawmakers unfold, an interesting set of questions emerges, needing careful consideration.
Has there been a moment in American history when citizens celebrated voter restrictions?
Are there any current holidays when the government and businesses chose to recall that era when the United States kept a group of people from exercising their right to vote or made it more difficult to vote?
Is there a reputable museum in the country asking citizens to recall the glory days when only a select group of privileged people voted?
What group of people, more than any other, has worked consistently to erect barriers and establish hurdles preventing others from the sacred act of voting?
Why do these people not want others on equal footing? Simply put, white supremacy.
People of faith would be wise to consider the influential role white supremacy played in voter suppression throughout the country’s history. From the very birth of the nation, white supremacy had a stranglehold on who gets a say and who does not when it comes to self-governance.
Here is a reminder about the history of voting rights in the U.S.:
1789: The U.S. Constitution granted states the power to set voting parameters, most often setting white male property owners as the only citizens allowed to cast a vote.
1820s: Most states dropped the requirement for property ownership but maintained white male tax-paying dominance.
1828: Maryland became the last state to remove religious restrictions for voters, giving voting rights to Jews.
1867: All native-born Americans were granted citizenship but not the right to vote. The exception was Native Americans, who were not granted citizenship until 1887.
1867-1870: The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevented states from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Quickly following, however, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws, hindering African Americans and poor white citizens from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and other restrictions. Under Jim Crow, only 3% of Blacks were registered to vote in the south.
1910-1920: Through the incredible advocacy of women and a number of states enacting voting rights for women, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 provided women voting rights. However, Black women remained impeded from voting.
1924: Native Americans were granted voting rights through the Indian Citizenship Act, even though some states kept them from voting until 1948.
1965: For the entire time under Jim Crow, African American advocates fought and sacrificed for voting rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped correct discriminating laws and practices.
1965-2020: A number of states have attempted to make it more difficult to vote by implementing voter ID laws, reducing funding for polling places, limiting mail-in and absentee voting, and restricting early voting.
2021: Laws restricting access to the ballot box were introduced in 49 states, with 19 states passing legislation that make it harder to vote.
The United States needs a new federally mandated voter rights bill to combat the rising tide of voter restrictions and oppression. While the new era of white supremacy no longer wears hoods and burns crosses, it does attempt to perpetuate fear based on false allegations and mythical outcomes.
It accuses opponents of voter fraud without any evidence.
It furthers the political divide through reckless rhetoric.
It sounds the alarm using apocalyptic tones.
It pits citizen against citizen, profiting extravagantly from those divisions.
It convinces political bases they should fear others.
It persuades these bases that winning on principle is not enough, and that the destruction of the enemy is the only righteous outcome.
As a country – and let’s be clear that both major parties have suffered at the hands of white supremacy – we need to demand a vote on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021.
If history has taught us anything, it is that citizens will not collectively do the right thing unless mandated to do so through the legal system or the collective body.
Every citizen deserves the sacred right to vote freely and unencumbered.
Otis Moss Sr. had a dream to vote in 1946 in rural Georgia, but the system and those supporting it did everything inside and outside their power to prevent him. They succeeded.
Otis Sr. never got to cast his vote, but he made his children promise that when given the chance, they would cast their ballot.
May we never return to the days when we allow white supremacy to interfere in our democracy.
From the insurrection of Jan. 6 in Washington D.C. to the multiple states passing voter restriction laws, the time is now for good faith people to stand up and speak out.
As the late John Lewis reminded us, “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”
CEO of Good Faith Media.